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Franz Kafka | Biography

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Born on July 3, 1883, Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Prague became the capital of the Czech Republic in 1993). Kafka's family spoke German at home, and his father, a successful businessman, worked as a retailer of men and women's clothing.

The oldest in the family, Kafka lost two younger brothers to illness and grew up with three sisters. His mother, Julie, spent much of her time helping her husband manage the store, while governesses and housekeepers took care of the house and the children. Kafka struggled to get along with his father, Hermann, an imposing authority with a quick temper. As Kafka grew older and took an interest in literature and writing, their relationship worsened. Hermann pressured his son to focus on business rather than creative pursuits. This tension plays out in many of Kafka's short stories and books, including The Metamorphosis, in which Mr. Samsa shows little empathy for his son, Gregor.

A good student, Kafka attended a German school, Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague. He started out pursuing chemistry but switched to law, a decision that appeased his father and allowed him to take a few art and literature courses. He joined the university's literary club and thrived as a result of his participation. After graduating in 1906 he worked as an unpaid law clerk and then as a lawyer with an Italian insurance company. But the work left him with no time or energy to cultivate his own writing. Kafka's unhappiness with this job and the fact that he was unable to pursue his own interests because of the hectic work schedule is reminiscent of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis. Also much like Gregor, Kafka suffered for years from depression and anxiety. He found a more manageable position with a government insurance institute, receiving several promotions over the years and finding time for writing in the off-hours (usually late at night). As often as he could, Kafka met with other writers to share and discuss their works; through these meetings, he developed close friendships with Max Brod (1884–1968), Jewish writer and biographer of Kafka, and Felix Weltsch (1884–1964), Jewish philosopher, writer, and editor.

While his legal career paid the bills, Kafka's real passion was writing. He started publishing short stories in a local magazine, Hyperion, and stuck to a rigorous writing routine that enabled him to amass an impressive body of work. All the while, he suffered from anxiety and depression, and although he never married, he spent time in brothels and fell in love with a Jewish woman, Felice Bauer. The two were engaged twice, but Kafka broke off the engagement each time, believing marriage was not the right path for him.

Kafka finished writing The Metamorphosis, his only completed novella, in 1912. It was published in 1915 but would not achieve popular acclaim until after his death. Kafka himself did not become a well-known author until after his death.

In 1917 Kafka became sick with tuberculosis and took leave from his insurance position. He spent a great deal of time resting, under the care of his sister Ottla. Meanwhile, he had a brief but fervent relationship with journalist Milena Jesenska (1896–1944). Later he met and fell in love with a Jewish kindergarten teacher, Dora Dymant (1898–1952), who had socialist leanings much like his own. The two moved to Berlin, where Kafka concentrated on his health and writing—and for the first time, lived away from his family.

When his condition worsened, Kafka returned home to a sanatorium in Prague, where he died at age 40, on June 3, 1924. Many of Kafka's short stories and novels had not yet been published and were incomplete at the time of his death. The writer left explicit instructions with friend and fellow author Max Brod for his work "to be burned unread." Brod decided to go against Kafka's wishes, publishing several of his friend's novels and stories over the next decade, including:

  • The Trial (1925)
  • The Castle (1925)
  • Amerika (1927)

Brod's move made a real difference in the legacy of his friend; little known before his death, Kafka is now considered a master of 20th-century German literature.

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